Portrait of Ai Weiwei,
Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario 

Ai Weiwei is an artist unlike any other of our time, crafting transgressive installations, assemblages and sculptures that address the complexities of human existence. His artwork is deeply personal and yet universal in meaning in its distillation of culture, politics and power. Although Ai Weiwei invokes social media as part of his creative practice, his sculptural and installation work is imbued with powerful emotions that cannot be conveyed through photos. This is art that you need to be in the same room with to truly appreciate the subtleties thereof. 

Ai Weiwei: According to What?  opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on August 17, 2013 as its sole Canadian venue.

In writing this review, it might appear that I am ignoring my self-imposed rule that an exhibition relate to fashion in some way, and yet it is a little known fact that Ai Weiwei moved to the USA in 1981 to attend Parsons The New School of Design. It was during this New York sojourn, where he found inspiration in the works of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Off to one corner and easy to overlook is one of Al Weiwei’s early works called Château Lafite from 1988. This sculpture is made from a pair of Chinese shoes strapped to an empty bottle of Chateau Lafite wine as a play on the word “feet”.  In my own reading of it, I might offer that this sculpture could also be read as a critique on the adoption of the western symbols of status by the ruling class of China.

“Château Lafite”, by Ai Weiwei 1988, Chinese slippers and Empty Bottle of Wine
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

Just as there are fashions in clothing, there are fashions in art. The work of Ai Weiwei might be in fashion, but it is one that will endure the test of time. Thoughtful, powerful and hauntingly beautiful, each piece resonates with the power and emotion of human existence. Three of my favourites included:

Kippe (2006) is an assemblage of pieces of ironwood from demolished temples from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) packed within the bars of a parallel bar set. There is a subtle scent emanating from the wood that seems to compress history into a rectilinear form, and the sculpture expresses aspects of the artist’s childhood memories. According to Ai, “during the Cultural Revolution, there was always a set of parallel bars and a basketball hoop in every schoolyard.” The other memory relates to the time his family lived in the Xinjiang region and neighbours would stop to admire the beautifully stacked firewood outside his family’s home.

“Kippe” 2008 by Ai Weiwei
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

For Straight (2008-2012), thirty-eight tonnes of steel rebar recovered from collapssed schoolhouses in the Sichuan earthquake disaster have been arranged on the floor. Each twisted rod has been carefully straightened in a laborious process and laid into a sea of rods, unbroken except for a singular rift that represents the gulf between the values of Chinese society. Ai Weiwei’s said: “A tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence; we are spineless and cannot stand straight”. 

“Straight” by Ai Weiwei 2008-2012
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

In the series, Coloured Vases (2007-2010), Han Dynasty vases were dipped into industrial paint in bright colours reminiscent of plastic toys. This series challenges the viewer to reconsider the role of authenticity and originality in artwork, and is one of the core questions related to the nature of Ai Weiwei’s creative practice. 

“Colored Vases” by Ai Weiwei with triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” in background
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

This exhibition led me to rethink the definition of art, something that I’ve been mulling over for a while  in relation to whether fashion can be considered art. Whatever the form it takes, whether it be an object, a photo, a film, or an act of performance, art moves us and changes how we see the world. In Matthew Teitelbaum’s introduction of the exhibition to the press, he said: “It’s not often you get to talk about art and the world at the same time.” Perhaps this is why Ai Weiwei’s is such an important artist — Ai Weiwei is literally a prisoner in his own studio, making art that speaks about the world to the world. For Ai Weiwei, the world is his art, the art his world. 

Ai Weiwei: According to What?
Opens August 17, 2013 
Art Gallery of Ontario
317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5T 1G4

Although the artist is not permitted to leave China, he will be interviewed by Matthew Teitelbaum via Skype on September 5, 2013. As well, there are a number of events and performances related to this installation. For more information, see the listing at http://www.ago.net/aiweiwei-events/

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